July 1, 2021 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Buffalo, New York recently made headlines with its Democratic primary for Mayor. In a stunning upset, India Walton, a Democratic Socialist, wrested the nomination from long-time incumbent Byron Brown.

“My story is remarkable, but not uncommon,” Walton declared. “And I just want to be the example for people like me that you can do whatever you set your mind to.”

It was an inspiring statement about her “not uncommon” story. A working mother at fourteen, Walton overcame poverty to become a nurse, a union representative in 1199SEIU, and a community organizer. In this familiar narrative, no matter your background, no matter how poor or disadvantaged at birth, you “can do whatever you set your mind to.”  

As Mattie Ross would say, that’s “true grit.”  

Walton’s statement was also a moment of truth in a campaign built on a different narrative gaining momentum among socialists and academics: resilience.

The Gritty Truth

“Resilience” and “grit” denote useful yet different qualities.  

“Grit” is about unwavering focus in attaining one’s goals. As psychologist Angela Duckworth argues in Grit, what matters most for success is not talent or luck but passion and perseverance. Recent research by scientists at Clarkson University has extended those insights, suggesting that “grit may help individuals lead a healthier lifestyle during stressful or negative events such as a global pandemic.”

Yet resilience also matters. According to the American Psychological Association, “Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.” It can mean not only bouncing back but growth. 

While such traits seem relevant to everyone, many academics and diversity advocates have begun questioning grit because it emphasizes individual effort and achievement rather than social structures. Joshua Kim, for instance, likes Duckworth’s description of grit but asks, “Could Grit Thinking Drive Inequality?” In his article published in Inside Higher Education, he observes, “recognizing the role of structure in determining life chances may cause the pro-grit / pro-resilience researchers to expand their policy recommendations. They may fight to equalize educational funding with the same passion as they advocate for changes in mindset.”

Experts on diversity and inclusion are more likely to emphasize resilience, connecting it with collective problems and solutions. For instance, San Francisco State University’s “Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Resilience (JEDI) Quickguide” urges readers to focus on their “collective traumas,” “problem-solving and collective resilience.”

More directly, academic librarian Eamon Tewell explicitly rejects “grit” and the “growth mindset” in a scholarly article about library instruction. He objects that academic librarians fail to attend to “the ways that such viewpoints limit both teachers’ and students’ potential.”

That’s right: teaching students to persevere limits their potential.

Tewell’s solution? “Critical information literacy and culturally sustaining pedagogy set aside the assumption that student achievement primarily results from effort and engagement. Regarding the dominant narratives of individualism and meritocracy as problems is an important approach for librarians to take in their instruction.” 

Instead of encouraging “grit,” Tewell argues we should teach students “critical information literacy,” which aims “to uncover and challenge how racism, sexism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression shape libraries and the greater information landscape.” 

Such articles could be read as encouraging librarians to teach students they are unable to thrive through their own efforts but must collectively force the system to equalize results.   

Which brings us back to politics.

Shaping the Socialist Narrative

In her more deliberate campaign moments, Walton implicitly rejects grit as the key component to success. Consider her interview with Jacobin Magazine, where she complains, “We are led to believe that hard work leads to success. That’s just not true.”

The political ideals shaping this belief are evident in her observation, “Hard work and rugged individualism won’t get us where we need to be as a society. Only collective organization and solidarity will.”  

To convey that message, the narrative is key:

One of the things that our campaign has been really good at is storytelling — being able to explain to people why socialism is not this evil monster that the establishment wants you to believe it is. Parts of the pandemic relief measures have brought to light what DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] has been saying: we can have health care for all; we can forgive debt; we can cancel rent; we can prioritize the health of our communities over the profits of large developers and big corporations.

Note Walton’s emphasis on “storytelling,” not facts. What does it mean to “forgive debt” and “cancel rent?” What are the results?  

Walton’s collectivist principles also inform the narrative presented on her official campaign website, where “resilience” is key: “India Walton embodies Buffalo’s sense of resilience.” She is “Real. Resilient. Ready.” In this context, “resilience” is needed to survive and overcome oppression in order to be ready.

For what is Ms. Walton ready? Planning, of course. For instance, in the first 100 days, her economic plan includes, “Prioritize small and minority-owned local businesses through the RFP process to increase successful bids for small, local contractors.”

The ethics of prioritizing some groups over others clearly do not concern her any more than the shift away from individual concerns. Ms. Walton is clearly unaware that she is taking her city down the well-trodden road to serfdom.

Further down this path, Ms. Walton might even reach the goals she did not include in her platform due to her pragmatism. She acknowledges that she is an “abolitionist,” which means abolishing the police “in the long haul.” 

In the meantime, all voters should attend to not only other candidates but the linguistic shifts indicating political change. As George Orwell observed in 1946, “[O]ne ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.” 

But it’s equally useful to return to Mattie Ross’s observation in True Grit: “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another.” Resilience is not going to settle socialism’s coming bill.

Caroline Breashears

Caroline Breashears

Dr. Caroline Breashears is a Professor of English at St. Lawrence University. Caroline received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and specializes in eighteenth-century British literature. Recent publications include Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing and the “Scandalous Memoir” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and articles in Aphra Behn Online and the International Journal of Pluralistic and Economics Education.

She was recently an Adam Smith Scholar at Liberty Fund, and her current research focuses on Adam Smith and literature. She teaches courses on fairy tales, eighteenth-century British Literature, and Jane Austen.

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